Wednesday 28 August 2019

Review: 'Something New' by Automathes (again)

‘Something New’ was one of my most interesting discoveries last year. It was an odd collection of miscellaneous essays with an emphasis on miscellany, containing odd in-jokes and references to other forgotten works and a tone that could never quite be determined. It didn’t help my confusion that I had picked up the second volume, I knew the first volume would have to come my way eventually.

It took less than half an hour to find a digital copy of the first volume, which sat on my e-reader while I got on with other things. Maybe there was a part of me that new the delicious oddness of the book might be lessened by reading the beginning but I was reluctant to pick it up for a while. When I did, I immersed myself right back in Automathes slightly slippery but comforting presence. 

The preface was very him, a selection of quotes from a different preface that would do the job as well as he could - a very effective way of being paid by the word. The quotes mainly deal with what a brilliant and modern thing miscellaneous essays are for managing not to talk about the serious and unserious altogether. (It also revealed that the essays had been a column before becoming a book). Unfortunately, there were several pages of the preface missing from my e-copy, so I don’t know what the conclusion was eventually.

The first essay was about a man who can’t help making odd little comments on everything he sees, from laughing chimneysweeps to proud prostitutes. The next essays carried on in a (I now realised, typical) bundle of subjects from the English character to suicide. His thoughts on suicide are very peculiar, he asks; “why would any man commit suicide instead of tickling himself?” and I really can’t understand why he thinks tickling is the only other option when depressed. 

We find out more about Automathes himself in this volume. He was born in Wrexham, he’s physically clumsy and he’s been in debt more times than he has been in love. We are also told that he learnt to read by looking at scraps of paper used in a barber’s shop for curlers and that he wished he’s learnt how to dress hair instead as there is more money to be got from looking after the outside of people’s ‘noddles’ to the inside. We hear some of his opinions on literature, that he enjoys novels and prefers a flawed hero like Tom Jones to a perfect one like Charles Grandison.

There’s an essay where he talks about the things he has learnt in his life. He feels that childhood, family and habit form us rather than any destiny, that all suffering should be lamented even if the person was horrid, that gifts should never be given with expectation of reward and that “Reading is the food, conversation the exercise, and contemplation the physic, of the mind.” One of the most provocative things he said in this section was, “What a wretched place a happy man is placed in! Having nothing more to gain and everything to lose!”

Finally, we learn that he is particularly attracted to red-heads, especially those with poor posture because he agrees with Hogarth that ‘the line of beauty is a curve’. As usual, I don’t know exactly how seriously to take him.

There is the beginning of the story ‘Indiana’, which was such an anticlimax in the second volume. Here, the story is begin very briefly before being left off for another topic. What’s odd, is that all the stuff about the ‘chain of thought’ and his insistence that each essay should be something new and not connected with the last, ideas that held the second volume together, are not even mentioned. Though the essays do contain a sort of precursor to that. He mentions several times how much he enjoys being free to write as he wishes, declaring that “I shall now, and throughout, present you with my thoughts, just as they may happen to fortuitously rise into my mind, without thought or connection.” He takes a real joy in wandering his own mind.

The main topic for essays in the second volume is the mysterious ‘Tri-Juncta’ and their peculiar magic/scientific powers, something which turned out to be advertising for another book. In this volume there are a string of essays arguing against atheism where Automathes comes across a little like the know-it-all in a pub and things got a little boring.

The ironic thing was, reading the first volume of ‘Something New’ after reading the first volume of ‘Something New’, it no longer felt like something new. I had been so captured by the strangeness of the second volume that I had been charmed. This volume is not as strange, people can’t will themselves to sleep of stop people’s hurts by wishing, a lot of it sounds like an oldish man haranguing young people about his accumulated wisdom. Yet, there is something in Automathes delight in his own ability to think, and in this ability in everyone, that though he bored me a little, I still like him.

And I still can’t tell when he’s being serious and when he’s joking.

Wednesday 21 August 2019

Review: Beau Nash by Oliver Goldsmith

Prior to a trip to Bath, I wanted to find out a little about how the eighteenth spa town grew and was particularly interested in Richard ‘Beau’ Nash, the Master of Ceremonies (and was succeeded by Samuel Derrick, one of the main people in Hallie Rubenhold’s ‘The Covent Garden Ladies).

Lucky for me, Oliver Goldsmith wrote a biography in 1762, a year after Nash died. As with most Goldsmith works, it came out to slightly snide reviews that stated that the author was a talent but was wasting it on subjects beneath him. More recent biographers have all made the link between this book and Samuel Johnson’s ‘Biography of Savage’ and some writers have declared it an important link in the development of modern biography. Norma Clarke’s ‘Brothers of the Quill’ talks a lot about the friendship between Goldsmith and Nash’s successor, Derrick. Robert Hopkins in ‘The True Genius of Oliver Goldsmith’ thinks it’s a masterpiece of satire and an important step towards ‘The Vicar of Wakefield’ - but of course he does, if Goldsmith sneezed, he say the same thing. I love Robert Hopkins, and think he often has a point but he does go too far sometimes.

There is a good case to make that this biography has a satirical element to it though, I certainly laughed a number of times. Though I think that the laughter is less to do with poking fun at Nash and exposing the emptiness of high society as it is with putting the reader on Nash’s side and getting us to like him for all his foibles. 

Richard Nash was born in Wales to a middle-class family and went to Oxford, where he discovered a talent for romantic intrigue and cards more than study. Going off to London, he joined the army where he ‘dressed to the edge of his finances’ and enjoyed lounging about London parks looking spiffy rather than anything of a more martial bent. Next he took up in Middle Temple where he organised a pageant for King William which the King was flattered enough to offer a knightship to Nash, who turned it down, not having the money to pull off the title. He discovered a knack for cards and found himself in Bath for the gaming.

At the time, the city was beginning to make a name for itself as a spa destination but it was when Nash was made Master of Ceremonies that it started getting the reputation as a fashionable destination. He organised fashionable entertainments, promoted and organised buildings suitable to them, raised money for a grand hospital and helped to create Bath that exists today. All the while, he made a precarious living off cards which eventually declined. He declared that he would write a biography of his life, which he never really started. To most people, this work was a threat to tell secrets and many noble families subscribed far more than they needed to keep him quiet. He died, nearly 90 years old and had a huge funeral. 

Nash’s is not the easiest life for an eighteenth biographer, the public were more used to biographies of saintly people, warlike leaders or great thinkers - biographies that were intended to celebrate the great and inspire the readers. Beau Nash seems sort of silly in comparison. He was a slightly shifty wannabe in a stupid white hat who pompously busied about making sure people didn’t wear boots in the ballroom. As an old man, Goldsmith paints the picture of a cringeworthy Hugh Hefner-esque character, wandering around and slobbering on the shoulders of pretty women. The book re-enforces the fact that Nash was a man of little talent, puffing up his little authority in a little kingdom - but I think Goldsmith makes that the point although he’s a silly man and he represents a silly culture but silliness is not evilness and if people can be silly but polite, they may manage to grow wisdom to match that politeness.

While there is a satirical reflection on the upper-crust for taking their social cues from a busybody with shady connections to gambling, it’s more a celebration of what a foolish, weak person can do with the talent they have. He was an important part in Bath’s development, he gave his own (and plenty of other people’s) money for projects that have made the city a UNESCO world heritage site, he banned swords and duals and he set a standard of behaviour - a standard that may have been too concerned with correct dress and address, but a standard nonetheless.

Goldsmith shows Beau Nash being both generous and stupid at the same time. He has a number of stories where Nash gives money to those who spend it foolishly, come back for more and are given more. When he had money, Richard Nash was generous and not particularly wise in his charity and Goldsmith, the creator of the incomparably foolish and generous Beau Tibbs in ‘The Citizen of the World’ has a slightly wry respect for that.

He gives some examples of the extreme flattery offered to Beau Nash, poems and dedications to his wisdom and generosity. My favourite was the dedication from an imprisoned con artist which served as a handbook on how to grift. Nash was obeyed by royalty, Princess Amelia, considered a tearaway in a family that included the future George IV, meekly accepted when he removed her white apron. To be admitted in the best parties in Bath was to go through Nash, so the great and good had to accept his authority. Naturally this lead him to being pompous and affected, as Goldsmith points out, even a strong mind could buckle under such power and Nash’s was never all that strong.

Nash is a gambler, but he warns people away from hard players and exposes tricks such as loaded dice. He set himself up as a part owner in (essentially) casinos but is tricked out of the winnings by his unscrupulous partners. Even the possible blackmail of his memoirs is waved aside by Goldsmith’s supposition that Nash was too public I man to have any deep secrets, and who is interested in the love lives of our grandmothers anyway? 

My favourite story was the one of Nash deciding to put a massive granite spike in the middle of the new Queen Square as a thanks to Prince Frederick, the figurehead of the Patriot Whigs, who had a big influence in Bath. Nash asked Alexander Pope (presumably through mutual friend, Ralph Allen AKA Squire Allworthy) to write the dedication. Pope repeatedly said that dedications were not really his thing but Nash insisted and paid him well over the odds to do it, so Pope wrote this piece of immortal literature…
"In memory of honours conferred and in gratitude for benefits bestowed in this city by His Royal Highness Frederick Prince of Wales and his royal consort in the year MDCCXXXVIII This obelisk erected by Richard Nash esq”

And that sums up Nash for me, he had the ability to mobilise the most talented people of a talented age and that was his sole talent but such people are needed sometimes.

Wednesday 14 August 2019

Dr Johnson's Reading Circle visit Stratford Upon Avon

Daring to leave the cosy safety of Dr Johnson’s House, the Reading Circle traveled to Stratford-Upon-Avon to visit one of the oldest historic house museums of them all, Shakespeare’s Birthplace. 

On the way, the group were given a Shakespeare related quiz, the results of which would be revealed at the end of the day and confirm that we were not exactly Shakespeare scholars.

The first stop on the tour was Shakespeare’s Birthplace, a site of tourism since the 18th century and an official museum since 1849, when the Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust was set up to stop PT Barnum buying it and shipping it over to the US. Thousands of people have visited it over the years, with a tradition being to carve their names on the walls and windows. We caught the signatures of Henry Irving and Thomas Carlyle scratched amongst a nest of names but other celebrated vandals include Walter Scott and Charles Dickens.

For those less destructively minded there was a visitor book going back to when the building was an inn called the Swan and Maidenhead. Names in there include Thackeray, Byron and Tennyson but was opened up on the page signed by Keats, he’d listed his place of abode as ‘everywhere’, because he was a waggish dude and a mad lad. 

As an eighteenth century inclined group, one of the main interests in Stratford-Upon-Avon were the works and efforts that people like Johnson and Garrick put into establishing him as national icon. The visitor’s centre had a number of objects that related to this, including early souvenirs such as Shakespeare busts and snuffboxes and a collection of items related to Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee. 

Held to celebrate the bicentenary of his birth (though five years late), this was a massive undertaking which swelled the town numbers and caused the creation of a temporary ballroom, racetrack and a huge pageant. Unfortunately the weather disagreed, the ballroom flooded, the pageant cancelled and hundreds of London’s bon ton were left wet, dirty and quite furious. The Birthplace contains a ticket (at a guinea), a souvenir medal and the Jubilee Cup, won by a horse called Whirligig.

Even the enthusiastic Boswell, who turned up to the event in Corsican national dress, felt a little washed out by the end, writing:
“After the joy of the Jubilee came the uneasy reflection that I was in a little village in wet weather and knew not how to get away.”

The house itself is a small, cramped affair with large painted leather covers to insulate the walls. There were the rooms in which John Shakespeare made gloves, a bedroom for girls and one for boys, and the master bedroom where Shakespeare was born. Costumed guides lingered in a number of key rooms, giving little talks and answering questions. There were great efforts to give an impression of how the house could have looked in Shakespeare’s day, with period furniture and reproductions, they even went to the trouble of hiding a walkie-talkie in a little leather bag. 

Outside, the sun was shining brightly and we wandered the garden before sitting down and listening to a little of Johnson’s introduction to his edition of Shakespeare’s plays. He hadn’t gone to the Jubilee, being more interested in Shakespeare’s words than the man himself (and finding the whole idea a little naff). Johnson declares Shakespeare to be the ‘poet of nature’, what’s more, he declares that Shakespeare is not best enjoyed by select quotation, but by whole plays.

“His real power is not shown in the splendour of particular passages, but by the progress of his fable, and the tenour of his dialogue; and he that tries to recommend him by select quotations, will succeed like the pedant in Hierocles, who, when he offered his house to sale, carried a brick in his pocket as a specimen.”

We listened to this recommendation of Johnson’s, as actors in another part of the garden acted out popular speeches.

We next went to the RSC’s gardens besides the river Avon. The sun was still shining, the wasps were wrestling and we supplemented our lunches with huge hunks of cake. While we sat eating, it was pointed out that all the lamp posts were different, this is because the garden contains a collection of lamp posts from around the country.

From the RSC gardens, we walked down the river to the Church of the Holy Trinity, where Shakespeare was baptised and buried. It was a brilliantly quiet place, lit by the sun through stained glass. There we saw the graves of Shakespeare and members of his family and the mediaeval font where they were baptised. The information boards in the church do a great job of explaining the rites and rituals that Shakespeare would have known and compares them with they way they celebrated now. Despite tourists, the church still felt like a living place of worship. As we left, a party of Buddhist monks in saffron robes entered.

The next place on our tour was Hall’s Croft, where Shakespeare’s oldest daughter lived with her husband who was a doctor to the rich. It was home to the most enthusiastic and knowledgable guides, who boasted about the high ceilings, the flagstone floors, superfluous use of expensive timber and multiple windows. The top rooms had an exhibition about Tudor medicine with a collection of trepanning tools and instructions on how to read urine. 

After a little rest in Hall’s Croft gardens, we walked towards New Place, the home which Shakespeare died and we would end our tour. On the way we had a sneaky-peek into the Guild Chapel. Shakespeare’s father had been paid four shillings for "defasyng ymages in ye chapel” but the whitewash has been stripped back and something of them remains. They are wonderfully detailed, disturbing and peculiar paintings of the dead rising from their graves and are well worth popping in for.

When we arrived at New Place, we found it wasn’t there. In 1759 the Reverend Francis Gastrell tore the place down in revenge on tourists who smashed his windows in for tearing down a mulberry tree supposedly planted by Shakespeare. The town were so enraged by his destruction of the house that they run him out. Now it is a beautiful set of gardens; the first a sculpture garden, the second a sunken knot garden and the last a lawn with two mulberry trees. We sat on the lawn, munching on mulberries and enjoyed the last of the sun, grateful for a very good day out.

We all had a fantastic day out and look forward to meeting again in October to tackle Henry Fielding’s ‘Joseph Andrews’.

Wednesday 7 August 2019

Review: The Rapture by Claire McGlasson

It’s not often I read a book the same century it was released, let alone a month later but ‘The Rapture’ by Claire McGlasson is about something that is rising up my list of interests, The Panacea Society. Starting with the peculiar ‘Satan’s Mistress’, then my visit to Bedford, then my reading of ‘Octavia: Daughter of God’, the Panaceans went from something on the fringes of my fascination to somewhere on the inside part of the edge (above Dr Forman but below William Harrison Ainsworth). It is also something I would have wanted to write a novel about some day.

I was a little wary with the book’s title. Not only did the Panaceans not believe in the concept of the Rapture, they believed in the opposite - they believed that their members would live forever and would be part of bringing Jesus down, rather than going up to meet him. (When members did start dying, they thought those members souls would go to Uranus, waiting to come down with the big J). But it became clear that ‘rapture’ did not mean the belief of being snatched away by God, but the emotion of it and its straddling between joy and insanity.

 The story is about Dilys Barltrop, Octavia’s daughter who found herself surrounded and buried by her mother’s religious organisation. Like Octavia, Dilys was prone to melancholic episodes and was sent away from Bedford a number of times, once to a cousin’s house and once to the south of France. She returned and lived back in the society. When her mother died, it was Dilys who organised all of the estate, selling Octavia’s house to the society for a nominal sum and receiving an annuity with which she lived quietly in a society owned house a little away from The Campus. Her main pleasure was to go down to the River Ouse and have an ice cream. 

The novel takes Dilys, her anxieties and the pressure cooker of living with, and being the daughter of, ‘The Daughter of God’ and dramatises it. While it uses many genuine Panacea members, makes extensive us of Panacea archives and includes a number of key moments of the society, it is definitely a work of fiction. The timeline of the society is moved around and squished up, the relationship between Octavia, Dilys and her brother Adrian is changed, there is a whole new character called Grace who is the plot’s catalyst…oh, and there’s an accusation of murder.

This meant that I read the whole book in two minds, one as a person interested in the society and the second as a reader of a novel. As a result, I both love this book and dislike it.

It’s clear that most readers are supposed to come to the novel first and then perhaps find out more about the society, to do it the other way round is a little disconcerting. There are a couple of blatant mistakes, Joanna Southcott is labelled the seventh prophet of ‘The Visitation’ and not the second. There is (what I feel) a negative slant on the notion of Overcoming. As I understood it, the process was more one of confession and self-accusation, whereas in the novel it becomes something of a mini police state. Nor does the book create the feeling of community and belonging that many of the members seemed to get from the society. Another big change is that the novel has scenes with Adrian trying to break into The Campus to visit Dilys when he actually visited with his children. Dilys’s fate at the end of the novel has her taken somewhere which is not the south of France.

And there’s Grace. A character invented for the book, she becomes the housemaid at Number 12, where Octavia and Dilys live. She and Dilys share their doubts, develop a friendship, a love and possibly a relationship, mostly through glances. Dilys herself narrates the novel (in the present tense) and is not the most reliable of narrators, being heavily weighed down and disturbed by her strange life. It may be that the relationship was consummated, it may be that it was consenting or not, the way the book is told leaves it uncertain. She exists in the book as a chance for grace, a chance for escape and a chance for love - as a novelistic conceit, she’s brilliant. Having a character break through Dilys’s shell, tease her out of herself, give her things to hope for and a secret to keep the book motoring along with great tension.

This is a really great novel.

When the novel and historical aspects lined up, I could enjoy it without reserve. The scenes where the members go down to London for the unveiling of Price’s Southcott Box is nail-biting; the bits where the members sneak around Bedford, burying linen squares of protection next to important buildings, are delightful and the dramatisation of Emily Godwin ‘casting out Controls’ by playacting fighting demons with a penknife are far more horrifying and shocking then they should be.

Even the parts that must be made up, like Dilys peeking through a keyhole to see her mother bare-chested, simulating breast-feeding with her closest followers, are deftly and engagingly written. The ending (spoiler) with Dilys going to an asylum, as her mother had been, but believing it was a ship to freedom with her brother, was harrowing and deeply moving - even if it has never happened. For those unencumbered by knowledge of the Panacea Society, this is a gripping and wonderful novel. For those with an interest in such things, it’s a gripping and wonderful novel with some massive liberties taken with the events.

Oh, and the accusation of murder? In the book, Dilys claimed that Emily Godwin poisoned Edgar Peissart, who had been kicked out for seducing a young man, in order to make her prophecy of his death come true. I very much doubt this happened but it did make for a great story, and that sums up this book well.